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Arizona has ‘nothing to lose’ in Pac-12 opener at No. 1 Stanford

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

The legend of Lainey Burdett reached a crescendo last September.

On a cool night in Palo Alto, the Arizona goalkeeper set a new career-high with 11 jaw-dropping saves to keep the Wildcats within striking distance of the eventual-national champion Stanford Cardinal.

Arizona wound up losing 1-0, but holding the nation’s No. 1 offense to one goal was a remarkable feat, considering Stanford fired 32 shots and Burdett was, well, not herself early on.

“She had the worst warmup in her life, in her career. She was awful,” recalls UA assistant Paul Nagy, “but she had the best game she ever had.”

Arizona (7-1) returns to Laird Q. Cagan Stadium Friday riding a seven-game winning streak, and they will need a similar performance from Burdett to challenge the top-ranked Cardinal in their Pac-12 opener.

Stanford (7-0-1) averages roughly three goals and 23 shots per game, and has not lost since August of last season.

“You just go into it knowing that it’s going to come and you just have to constantly be focused,” Burdett said of the Cardinal’s impending barrage. “We have nothing to lose. People are already ruling us out and passing over our game, so we might as well just give everything we have.”

The Cardinal are bound to score at some point — “we don’t expect to beat Stanford 1-0,” Burdett said — but how the Wildcats respond will be the difference between a 4-0 loss, a 1-1 draw, or maybe even an improbable 2-1 win.

“I keep telling (Burdett) that it’s not going to be perfect, you gotta battle, and it’s all about competing,” Nagy said. “You gotta compete and not think ‘this save wasn’t perfect, it was off my elbow’ when it’s not in the goal. That’s all that matters. Get up and do it again, your team needs you to do it again.”

Stanford is undeniably the best team in college soccer. The reigning champs are outscoring opponents 23-5 this season and had won 29 straight games until they tied 1-1 with No. 7 Santa Clara at home last weekend.

All but one of Stanford’s 28 players have some form of international experience.

“They’re all really, really talented players that can keep the ball on you and make you work extremely hard to get it back,” Nagy said. “And so when you have to give that much effort just to get the ball back, it takes an extra level to be able to keep it yourself to create chances. So for us, it’s ‘can we do enough to be able to get the ball to go create a chance to score a goal?’”

Arizona will have to be creative. Head coach Tony Amato told his team Tuesday in the post-practice huddle that they should expect to deploy a 4-4-3, 5-3-2 and virtually any other formation necessary to keep the Cardinal at bay.

Last season, Arizona used five defenders against Stanford instead of their customary four, which proved effective.

“It’s always better to throw different looks at them,” Nagy said. “They’re that good and that sophisticated that they’ll figure out the weakness. ... And so if you keep throwing different looks at them, then you’ll be able to maybe throw them off their game a little bit and they’ll have to keep trying to find that weakness and we’ll change it on them again.”

Arizona has not beaten Stanford since 2005, but they have been extremely competitive lately. Since 2013, only one match between the teams has been decided by more than one goal. Three matches have gone into overtime.

“It’s like anyone else,” Nagy said. “As long as we can compete and have a little composure once we do get (the ball), we’re talented enough now to make runs at these kind of teams.”

And it’s pivotal the Wildcats are cognizant of that.

“It’s really important that you don’t get beat before you get on the plane by just the aura of Stanford or that they’re the national champion,” Amato said. “Every year is different, every team is different, every game is different and we have to remember that as we travel up there.”

Arizona played defense almost the entirety of last year’s match, but they did manufacture a scoring chance early in the game, which UA forward Jill Aguilera said provided a sense of belief.

Remembering that, plus seeing Santa Clara go toe-to-toe with Stanford last Sunday, gives the Wildcats hope heading into the rematch.

“I mean they have still not lost a game in 29 games, but (Santa Clara) getting a draw hopefully gives a little belief to our team going into that they’re not invincible,” Amato said. “We’ve played Santa Clara, we’ve had to success against them in the past and obviously every year is different, but I think you can look at some of those markers as a little boost in your confidence. They (Stanford) played Minnesota and went to overtime, so all those things are helpful.”

But it all circles back to Burdett, the UA’s all-time shutouts leader.

“There’s been years we’ve been down 2-0 to Stanford and gone to overtime, 2-2. So she knows, this is now her fourth year of doing it, she’s going to have to compete and she’s going to have to grind it out,” Nagy said. “Maybe she has another bad warmup again and will have another great game. We’ll see.”